News & Politics

Chasing the Gold

Some of the World's Best Swimmers Live Here--and Dream of Olympic Glory

By Lindsay Moran

Some of the world's greatest athletes live almost anonymously in Washington. While most of us are getting out of bed, they're at the pool doing their second or third solitary mile. In the evening, while we're getting ready for dinner, they're again back at the pool.

Competitive swimmers practice about five hours a day. This usually means working your way across the same distance–back and forth, back and forth. What you see are the lane lines along the pool's bottom, or–if you're a backstroker–the lights overhead.

The long hours and fast times go largely unnoticed. In many sports there's some reward to being among the top ten, but to be second in the world of swimming–behind a Michael Phelps or a Tom Dolan–is a ticket to obscurity.

Why do they do it? Most can't imagine not swimming. They love the sport. And every four years, swimming has its moment in the sun. It's called the Olympics.

This year, the US team's Olympic trials will take place over eight days, starting July 7, in Long Beach, California. Several Washington-area champions will compete to be one of the two American swimmers in each Olympic event.

Starting in 1972 with three-time gold medalist Melissa Belote, Washington has produced an impressive number of Olymic stars: Mike Barrowman, Tom Dolan, Mark Henderson, and Ed Moses. They all came up through the system created by Rick Curl, who founded Curl-Burke Swim Club in 1978. His understated coaching style has earned him the respect of swimmers worldwide.

In recent months, the accomplishments of Washington swimmers have been eclipsed by Michael Phelps, who is from north of Baltimore. His success–he's considered the best swimmer in the world–casts a shadow that is both inspirational and intimidating.

With a nod to Phelps, here's a look at some contenders who are closer to home.


"I'm a Lance Armstrong Fanatic"

Ryan Hurley's coach, Rick Curl, has described Hurley–an 18-year-old graduate of Georgetown Prep–as the best high-school 200-meter breaststroker in the country. When he hears this, Hurley, an affable and lanky kid, blushes and lowers his mop of chlorine-bleached blond hair: "I don't know. I mean, sometimes I am, I guess."

Transplanted from California at the age of 11, Hurley attributes a large part of his success to other people: Curl, who "creates an atmosphere where everybody wants to be the best"; his mother, who "still gets up in the morning before I do and makes me breakfast"; his teachers at Georgetown Prep, who have "been incredible about giving me work in advance if I have to take off for a big meet"; and his hero, Lance Armstrong: "I read his book and now I'm a Lance Armstrong fanatic."

With a time of 2:18:16–less than nine seconds off the world record–Hurley has a shot at making the Olympic team, but he realizes he might not.

"This will be more of a learning experience for me. My goal is to make the final eight," he says, referring to the eight finalists who swim the last heat. "As Rick says, 'You make that cut in the morning, and then you never know what can happen at night.' "MEGHAN THIEL

"A Lightning Bolt"

Distance swimmers bask in even less glory than the sprinters. Fans often go for refreshments during events that last more than two minutes.

"I'm definitely well suited to what we call the 'old lady' events," says 19-year-old Meghan Thiel of the slower races like the 400- and 800-meter freestyle.

Thiel's manner mirrors the events she swims. She's reflective and observant. While many swimmers rev themselves up by listening to music, shaking out their arms, or jumping up and down behind the starting blocks, Thiel prepares by watching what's going on: "The atmosphere of a swim meet is pretty cool."

Thiel, who has taken a year off between graduating from Arlington's Yorktown High and starting college at American University, is making her second try at the Olympics. Four years ago, at age 15, she qualified for trials in the 800-meter freestyle. Thiel expects to qualify for the 800 again this year. She's also made the Olympic trial cut in the 400-meter freestyle.

Thiel won't say what she thinks her chances are, but she smiles as she recalls a fable she read called "The Light of Zeus": "Zeus sends down a lightning bolt to an athlete who doesn't have much of a chance, and makes that athlete the champion."


"I Was Trying to Beat Him"

Jarrod Marrs knows more than anyone what a difference one second can make. In the 2000 Olympic trials, Marrs was 1.6 seconds slower than Ed Moses in the 100-meter breaststroke. Moses made the team bound for Sydney. Marrs came in fifth and did not.

In Sydney, Moses became the first swimmer to break one minute in the breaststroke leg of a world-record 400-meter medley relay, which earned the US team and Moses a gold medal.

Back home, Marrs was not about to give up. That fall, he moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Burke, Virginia, to train with Pete Morgan, the man who coached Moses.

He also moved in with Moses. For close to a year, Marrs lived with, practiced with, and learned from his competitor. "Sometimes there was tension," the 29-year-old Marrs says. "Ed was trying to stay ahead of me, and I was trying to beat him."

Moses later moved from his hometown of Burke to Charlottesville to study and train at the University of Virginia. Despite medaling in Sydney, he still has to compete for a spot on the team this year.

Moses had his bedroom coverted into an altitude chamber, completely sealed off and equipped with generators, which enables him to simulate an altitude of anywhere from 1,000 to 12,000 feet.

"I generally keep it at 9,000 feet," he says, explaining that the thinner air makes his lungs more efficient.

For Moses, the money needed for specialized training and to travel to meets is no longer a problem–product endorsements and corporate sponsors pay the bills. For Marrs, money is a challenge. Although he has a mechanical-engineering degree, for now he is supported by his wife, Holly, a former diver.

"She has a good job with IBM," Marrs says. "We're doing this for one year, for me to make the Olympics. After that, I'm done at a competitive level."

Marrs has a singular inspiration: His mother, who overcame breast cancer in 1995, now is battling ovarian cancer.

"My mother's struggle with cancer put things in perspective," Marrs says. "If I do make the Olympics, I'd like my mom to be here for that."


"I Couldn't Get a Purple Ribbon"

When Kate Ziegler was six, her parents wanted her to join the local swim team, but she was terrified by the prospect of competing in races. This summer, Kate–soon to be 16–and her family will head to Long Beach for her first try at the Olympics.

"It's kind of like a vacation for my family," says Ziegler, who has qualified in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle. "My sister's excited because she wants to see The Price is Right live."

At just under six feet tall, the cheery Ziegler towers over her Bishop O'Connell classmates. At first she was oblivious to her natural ability. "When I was little, my goal was to get every different color of ribbon. I remember being upset that I couldn't get the eighth-place purple one."

Ziegler began to blossom as an athlete at the age of nine. She now represents the Fish, a Virginia-based swim team, and she is ranked about 25th in the nation in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle. She has also qualified for the 200-meter freestyle, whose top six swimmers at the trials form the Olympic relay teams.

Ziegler, who trains at least 25 hours a week, has little rituals that she thinks help her. "Once, my coach told me that eating a baked potato was a good thing to do before competition. Now, whenever Mom is driving me over to the meet, I'm next to her eating my potato."


"I Was the Team Nerd"

By day, 23-year-old Alice Henriques is an education-policy researcher at the Brookings Institution. Most of her colleagues don't know she is a world-class swimmer.

"They know that I swim, I suppose," says Henriques, who is making her second try at the Olympic team in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. "But they don't really know my daily grind."

That grind entails getting up before dawn and driving from her Arlington group house, which she shares with three other recent college graduates, to American University, where she swims for two hours before work. After a full day at Brookings, she goes back to AU for afternoon practice and a dry-land workout, which might include stretching, weights, and drills using an enormous medicine ball.

If she has an out-of-town meet, she takes a laptop and works on the plane. Unlike most other serious swimmers, she's always viewed academics as her first priority: "In college, I was the team nerd," she says of her years at UC Berkeley.

Henriques didn't plan to train for the Olympics this year because there was a math class, she says, "required by all the best graduate schools." After months off of swimming, she entered the pool again in December, after completing the class.

With such a relaxed approach, what are her chances? Four years ago at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she came in 12th. Rick Curl describes her as "a serious contender" for the 2004 team.

Henriques doesn't regret focusing on academics before swimming. Nor is she bothered that she'll be one of the few swimmers in Long Beach without her family.

"They all came to the last Olympic trials," Henriques says, shrugging. "They're a bit over it.' "


"I Have More Talent"

Mark Liscinsky knows how to play the confidence game. Of his lifelong hero, local legend Tom Dolan, Liscinsky says: "Mentally, he was the best there ever was, but I think I have more talent."

Two summers ago, Liscinsky left Rockville Montgomery Swim Club, the team with which he had been since childhood, to join Curl-Burke so he could train with Dolan.

At the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, Dolan–who has battled asthma most of his life–won a gold in the 400-meter individual medley. Four years later, he set a world record in Sydney. Dolan was an inspiration to athletes and asthmatics worldwide but in particular to Liscinsky, who swam many of the same events.

Liscinsky, now 22, got to train with Dolan for one summer before Dolan retired. The two became what Liscinsky describes as "great friends," and they share a house in Arlington. Liscinsky's inspiration is now his live-in mentor.

"Before any big meet, Tom and I will go out to dinner," says Liscinsky, who seems to have adopted the casually chic grunge look introduced to the sport by Dolan. "We'll talk about what I need to do."

Liscinsky's coach, Rick Curl, says the only thing holding back the gifted young Liscinsky is experience.

"He's new to the game, and that won't help him," Curl says. "But he's a great racer by nature."

Liscinsky, who has qualified for Olympic trials in five events–the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, the 200-meter individual medley, the 400-meter individual medley, and the 200-meter freestyle–has competed in only one major international meet, the World University Games in Korea.

"I was representing the United States, which was pretty awesome," Liscinsky says. "I want to be able to represent our country again."


"I Just Have to Believe"

Mike Raab of Rockville is one of the best swimmers in his event, the 200-meter butterfly. He also may have the least chance of making the team.

The two swimmers ranked above him are fellow Marylander Michael Phelps, the best swimmer in the world, and Tom Malchow, who won a gold medal in the event in 2000 and held the world record until it was shattered by Phelps.

"Then there's me," says Raab, who will enter his fourth year at the University of Virginia. "I'm the third-place guy."

Rabb grew up swimming at Montgomery Aquatic Center, which was built within walking distance of his house in North Bethesda when he was seven. "If it weren't for the 'Mac,' I probably never would have started swimming," he says.

Two years ago Raab never would have imagined he'd be an Olympic contender. He credits Virginia head coach Mark Bernardino for the transformation.

"To go from where I was then," Raab says, referring to 17th at the 2000 Olympic trials, "to among the top five is huge. Mark made me believe that I could be that good."

Still, Phelps's shadow looms large. Raab recalls almost affectionately the first time he became aware of Phelps.

"I was 16 years old, and I had just broken the meet record at Junior Nationals," he says. "I was standing on the block for finals, and the announcer starts with eighth place and goes up the line, reading the names. He got to fifth and said this guy was 13 years old and that he had qualified for Senior Nationals. I remember thinking, 'Whoa, that's not bad.' Turns out that was Phelps."

That summer, Phelps came in fifth at the Olympics.

"He's been pretty inspirational to me," Raab, 21, says of the younger Phelps. "This time, I'm looking to be the 'upset guy.' It happened to him last time. I just have to believe it can happen for me."